Rami Malek, sporting one helluva set of prosthetic dentures and an array of questionable wigs, stars as Mercury, who went from Heathrow baggage handler to rock god over the course of about two decades. Directed (mostly) by Bryan Singer, who was fired from the production late in the game and replaced with Dexter Fletcher, the film traces Mercury’s rise to fame and hits all the key notes: his teaming with Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) to form Queen in 1970; his relationship with lifelong love Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton); his increasingly flamboyant and outrageous escapades; his substance abuse and estrangement from his bandmates; his sexuality; and his AIDS diagnosis in the mid-1980s.
Bookended by Queen’s stadium-shaking now-legendary reunion performance at Live Aid in 1985, Bohemian Rhapsody is a pretty standard-issue biographical film that ticks all the requisite boxes and does shed some light on how – and, more interestingly, why – several of Queen’s biggest hits were created (perhaps most notably, “We Will Rock You”). There might not be a whole lot of new information in its 135-minute running time but, for anyone who grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s, what it lacks in revealing insights or previously unknown details it makes up for in nostalgia. I watched Live Aid at home when it was broadcast, and seeing it recreated in painstaking detail brought back all the feels.
For his part, Malek does a decent job as Mercury, shining brightest when he slips into Mercury’s spectacular spandex and stage acrobatics, but comparatively weaker and less convincing in the offstage/personal-life sequences, which feel somewhat hollow. His previously mentioned curious coifs are sometimes distractingly bad, and I’m not sure the epic dentures, as much as they’re a necessity for the part, help much when it comes to effective and emotive line readings – it just looks and sounds like Malek is trying hard to get out his words.
The actors playing the other members of Queen are all strong, but it’s supporting players such as Aidan Gillen (as the band’s manager), Tom Hollander (as their lawyer) and Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech (as Mercury’s de-facto manager/hanger-on/eventual betrayer) who really elevate the proceedings. Leech, especially, walks a brilliantly fine line between adoration and unhealthy obsession, making his Paul Prenter simultaneously worthy of pity and scorn. The Mike “Wayne Campbell” Myers cameo – as EMI exec Ray Foster, who hated the titular tune – is a little too on-the-nose/meta “WINK, WINK, GET IT?!?! HAHAHAHA!,” though.
Despite its minor flaws, Rhapsody is nonetheless enjoyable overall – it’s just not the mind-blowing cinematic experience I hoped it would be. It is packed with amazing music and some solid performances, and it elicited tears from me more than once. And if you’re a child of the ‘80s, the chance to re-experience the extravaganza that was Live Aid on a big screen, especially after reliving the history leading up to Wembley Stadium erupting at the sight of Mercury taking the stage, might – MIGHT – alone be worth the price of admission.
The Blu-ray release includes the full 20-minute Live Aid set, as re-created (emotional power intact) for the film (set list: “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Radio Ga Ga”, “Hammer to Fall”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “We Will Rock You”, “We Are the Champions”). There are also three behind-the-scenes featurettes, clocking in at roughly 20-minutes each: “Rami Malek: Becoming Freddie”, “The Look and Sound of Queen”, “Recreating Live Aid”. Tidbits include a discussion of the many sets of prosthetic buck teeth that Malek had to go through (while still being able to act) until they found a set of chompers that worked; the fascinating re-creation of the Live Aid concert scene, where they had to deal with reviving the look of the old Wembley Stadium, the lights on the stage, and the trailers behind the scenes, plus generating a small crowd of extras to look like tens of thousands of people (computer magic!); plus there’s plenty of the real Brian May and Roger Taylor, who were heavily involved with the film, including loaning some of their actual instruments and clothes for such scenes and the barn studio where the band recorded “Bohemian Rhapsody” among other songs.